The importance of range edges for an irruptive species during extreme weather events
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Threats to wildlife species from extreme events, such as droughts, are predicted to increase in frequency and magnitude with climate change. Extreme events can cause mortality and community-level changes, but for some mobile species, movement away from areas affected may be a viable option.
We examined the effect of extreme weather on spatial patterns of abundance for an irruptive grassland bird species, the Dickcissel (Spiza americana).
We calculated route-level annual abundances and abundance anomalies from 1980 to 2012 from North American Breeding Bird Survey data, and classified the Dickcissel’s range into core and edge regions using these abundances. We then compared abundances in the core and edge regions to the standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index, a measure of drought, in linear regressions.
We found that Dickcissel irruptions in the northern range edges were related to drought conditions in the range core, potentially a consequence of birds being ‘pushed’ to the range edge when weather was unsuitable. Specifically, Dickcissels moved into refuge sites containing a high proportion of cultivated crops, with higher vegetation greenness, than those areas they leave during drought years.
In a changing climate where more frequent extreme weather may be more common, conservation strategies for weather-sensitive species may require consideration of habitat in the edges of species’ ranges, even though non-core areas may be unoccupied in ‘normal’ years. Our results highlight the conservation importance of range edges in providing refuge from extreme events, such as drought, and climate change.
KeywordsDrought Extreme weather Grassland birds Range edge Range core Refuges
We thank the NASA Biodiversity Program and the Climate and Biological Response funding opportunity (NNH10ZDA001N-BIOCLIM) for support of this research. We thank P. Culbert for BBS data extraction, and for providing us with landcover and image texture data. We thank R. Behnke for weather data analysis, C. Flather, J. Gorzo, and T. Albright for ideas and discussions which strengthened our analysis, and all of the volunteers who contribute to the BBS. Any use of trade, product, or firm names are for descriptive purposes only and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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